AMSTERDAM/BELGRADE (Reuters) - A Serbian politician charged with war crimes has been ordered to return to The Hague by judges who said he had breached the terms of compassionate release under which he had been allowed to live his remaining days in his homeland.
Vojislav Seselj, 60, was released in November due to his terminal cancer, on condition that he must return to the war crimes court at any time if ordered to do so. Instead, the former nationalist party leader told supporters at a rally in Belgrade he would never go back to The Hague.
Monday’s ruling, by a court that is strongly backed by the European Union, presents Serbia’s pro-Western government with a dilemma, as it tries to shore up support for EU integration against an increasingly active Russia. Serbia’s foreign minister said the case could destabilize the Balkan region.
Seselj was charged more than a decade ago with inciting murder and ethnic persecution in firebrand speeches he gave as leader of the Serbian Radical Party. He had been in custody since surrendering to the Yugoslavia tribunal in 2003 and his trial is formally still ongoing.
Seselj’s defiant stand against the court gives Serbia’s government, headed by a former close ally, the politically unpalatable task of having to arrest him.
“I will not return voluntarily,” Seselj told Belgrade’s Vecenje Novosti newspaper. “Let the police come ... The arrest will not be an easy job,” he said, adding that he would appeal the decision in the Serbian courts.
Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, a former Seselj ally who turned his back on his mentor’s ultra-nationalism in favor of EU integration, told reporters: “We will respond in the coming days.”
Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said in a statement: “Today’s decision of the Hague tribunal ... is perfidious and scandalous and jeopardizes the stability of Serbia and the entire region.”
Dacic said Belgrade had not yet been officially informed of the decision.
Seselj’s trial has been among the tribunal’s longest, delayed both by his own stalling tactics, and by the replacement of one of the three judges on the case, who revealed himself to be biased in a private letter that was leaked to the media.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was set up in 1993 to try those suspected of war crimes during the break-up of Yugoslavia, in conflicts that cost more than 130,000 lives and lasted most of the 1990s.
Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic and Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Robin Pomeroy